Winning the public popularity contest
The social housing sector regularly gets a raw deal in the national press yet the image that is portrayed is a far cry from the reality so where do the negative perceptions come from and what can be done to promote the good work that goes on every day?
Social housing professionals know all too well that the sector is about so much more than putting a roof over people’s heads but for some reason when it comes to the general public the sector has got itself a bad name with tenants being blamed for many of society’s ills.
“With some of the headlines that appear in the media it can seem as if people living in social housing are targeted as causing many of the problems,” says Nicola Dufty, managing director of Profile Communication.
“I don’t like the phrase Broken Britain because it conjures up the wrong image and again often social housing is wrongly at the centre of that.”
Negative perceptions tend to be based on stereotypes says Lyndsey Maddocks, PR and editorial director at the Word Association, with social housing tenants being portrayed as long-term unemployed with no interest in working and no aspirations and the common misconception of people being “given free housing”.
But these perceptions are at loggerheads with the real picture of what is happening on the ground. “I think that people who live in social housing and who work in the sector do appreciate the good work that it does and the whole rationale behind it,” says Barry Cooke, communications manager at Rooftop Housing, but he believes that the vast majority of people don’t really understand what is meant by the term.
“There certainly is a stigma attached to social housing in some circles and I think it can be really unfair as it doesn’t match the realities on the ground in most cases,” says Simon Baylis, senior account manager at communications agency Acceleris. “The majority of social tenants are honest, hardworking people but there is a small minority view, the Daily Mails of this world where they are ideologically opposed to council housing generally and no matter what you do the only story that they have is of benefit scroungers and that sort of thing and unfortunately no matter how hard you work you will never change their views. Luckily the majority of people are more open to the situation but I would say with some people there is an image problem and it falls on us in the sector to shout from the rooftops and do what we can to tackle this.”
The sector, it would seem, is a bit too modest about its achievements and while organisations are happy to share success stories with their counterparts very few are promoting their accomplishments to a wider audience.
“The successes don’t get promoted very well,” says Maddocks. “Maybe it is a modest sector and maybe they need to shed the modesty and see the value in promoting themselves because it can lead to other opportunities for the organisation and for their tenants and communities as well.”
“The power of PR can’t be underestimated,” says Dufty. “Perhaps some people can fear that it is all about bigging their organisation up and what is the value in that? It is not about that, if you do it properly and you work with the right PR agency it is just more about achieving what you need to achieve as part of your plans.
“Marketing and communication is a critical element of success in business and it is in this sector too, it motivates and creates a team spirit, inspires confidence with customers and stakeholders and it builds your reputation.”
She says that social landlords should start by deciding what their corporate goals are and what they want to achieve before putting in place a solid PR schedule with structured key messages which mirror the corporate plan and the organisation’s objectives.
It is important to get all employees on board says Maddocks and to ensure that frontline staff are feeding positive news back to the communications teams. “The housing officers and other front line staff are the eyes and ears and when they are out and about meeting tenants they sometimes come across really nice stories but unless they are fed back you can’t make the most of them.
“It is a good idea to get everyone thinking about what makes a good story and giving them the confidence if they are going to be interviewed by someone and letting them know what to expect.
“It is a means to an end and unless we communicate with the media we are not going to get the positive coverage that will benefit the sector and your own organisation.”
Press releases are perhaps the most cost effective way of highlighting good news stories and of getting an organisation’s message out via various different publications and a good working relationship with the local media can help organisations to spread their messages beyond their tenants and can help to achieve balance when the inevitable bad news stories are aired.
“People still look to the local media as a reference point to what is going on in their area so local papers are incredibly important,” says Baylis. “It is as simple as setting up a meeting with the local paper and finding out who is best to cover stories for the area and if you build a personal relationship you have got more chance of getting a fair hearing when the inevitable bad news happens.
“You are going to be open to fair criticism when things go wrong so the best you can hope for is to get a fair hearing and to try and put across a balanced view instead of just the perception of repeated negative stories.
“Being open and honest with communications is generally a good idea, there is no point trying to change reality. If there are problems then you need to address them. There could be serious issues behind negative perceptions so if you do get criticism I think the first thing to do is to look at whether it is valid and ask what can the organisation learn from that – there is an opportunity there and the only way to deal with it is to be open and honest with it and focus on what you are trying to do to fix it.
“But also put it into context, quite often you will get a negative report but it is actually the one-off that is making the headlines when in fact 99 per cent of people are happy with something, so I think context is important and you often get that from either your good relations with the local press if you keep them updated or from sending out positive stories.”
As Dufty explains it is human nature to “gossip about the shocking and the bad” and while it is not possible to stop all negative press landlords can counteract bad news with good news stories and by being seen to be proactive when things do go wrong.
“You have got to accept that to a degree negative stories will always grab the headlines but general stereotypes and negative perceptions can be challenged over time,” she says. “I think they come from many different sources and build up over time and become the norm and it is our job to challenge these stereotypes by making sure that every time a particular word or tone is used we hold people to account for it. If journalists are not fed the positive messages enough how can we expect
them not to report in the way that they have always done?
“The real fact is that professionals who work in the social housing sector are actually among some of the most forward-thinking people in the country, they are literally at the coalface of what is happening day to day and are the first to gauge the mood of society. It is no longer just about producing a decent home, they are going much further than that and they are often involved in a raft of innovation work. We see it day to day working with housing associations; they have the power to improve people’s prospects, aspirations and their confidence. There are so many examples of how they are doing that and it is just getting those out there and presenting them in a newsworthy way.
“It is about pulling out those positive stories and getting that human interest element in there and creating a strong schedule around it so you can drip feed those positive messages to the media.”
But as with everything the social housing sector doesn’t have a bottomless pit of funds to spend on flashy marketing campaigns so must instead find cost-effective ways of promoting its work.
“Your hugely expensive marketing has a role but there are cheaper ways to do it, especially with the pressure in budgets at the moment and I think there is a need to make sure that spending is prioritised really – communications need to prove their worth,” says Baylis.
He suggests a raft of inexpensive measures that can be used including social media, ensuring that websites are up to date, regular meetings with tenants to gauge their opinions, sending out newsletters, maintaining good relationships with the local press, making regular contact with key contacts such as the local MP and keeping them up to date on issues and providing media training to frontline staff.
“You just need to work harder and be more creative and make sure what you are doing is absolutely relevant because you can’t afford waste,” says Maddocks. “Everything has got to be very focused, it will just require more effort when you have got a tighter budget but there are still ways of promoting especially nowadays with technology being more advanced.”
Cooke acknowledges that there will sometimes people who will dismiss money spent on newsletters, for example, as a waste but “it is about balance,” he says. “If we weren’t sending out a quarterly newsletter or ever doing press releases or anything to do with marketing with a small ‘m’ then I think people would complain more and ask why haven’t you told us about this I want to know what is going on.”
Online communication through websites and social media is one way of communicating messages relatively cheaply. Facebook is “definitely something that social landlords should be using as part of their toolkit” says Maddocks. “They just need to make sure that they know what they want to achieve from it and that they really keep a focus on that because when resources are so scarce you can’t afford to waste things.”
But while social media has many advantages it also brings its own challenges and has the power to make or break organisations.
It is this power that is perhaps putting some organisations off from using it says Gary Banks, managing director of Social Innovations, which specialises in developing applications to help social media as a platform to effectively promote products and services.
“Some housing associations are afraid of using Facebook and Twitter because they are worried about tenants coming on and discussing their problems openly,” he says. “Yet what they should be doing is using those channels to get tenants to do that but then actively answering them in a positive way.”
“It is about being open and honest and having a platform wherepeople can say I have got a problem or thankyou very much for an amazing service but it has to be open to the negatives and positives,” says Phil Smith, director of Rococo Communications, which specialises in social media and brand reputation.
And it is not just a format for communicating with tenants explains Banks but can also provide social landlords with valuable information about their residents which can help them to better target future communications.
While Twitter can be a great source for sharing news and case studies with journalists who often use the forum as a source, says Baylis. But while social media is fairly inexpensive to set up it requires time and effort to manage as people expect regular updates and timely responses to enquiries. “Most of social media and interaction is about the time management or the people who are going to be sharing the content. Once it is set up it is having someone who is willing to draw the content and shout about it,” says Smith.
Whatever option landlords choose to promote their work and their wares, it seems that investment in PR will pay.
As Dufty says: “Bill Gates once said if he had his last marketing dollar he would spend it on PR because it is an incredibly cost effective way of communicating with people but it is all about deciding what you need to achieve so that investment can be repaid 10 or 20 times over.”